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Memories in a pile: As Baton Rouge area guts flooded homes, mountains of debris mark landscape

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 The massive debris piles grew at an astonishing rate on streets throughout East Baton Rouge Parish and surrounding areas over the weekend as many flood ravaged residents got their first real opportunity to remove water-damaged belongings and gut their flooded homes.

Clothing and children's toys, along with water-soaked carpeting and sofas and damaged refrigerators and stoves and the bric-a-brac of daily life were stacked outside houses from the Glen Oaks area of north Baton Rouge to Tiger Bend Road to the east and throughout the region.

The debris piled on the street outside the home of Mike and Paulette Johnson on Glen Oaks Drive, just down the block from Glen Oaks High School, was taller than the average person by lunchtime. And the Johnsons, their son and two nephews weren't finished adding to the pile.

The Johnsons, who reside in a no-flood zone and like many others did not have flood insurance, said they plan to buy it as soon as they can.  They lost two vehicles and just about everything in their home of 29 years when 3 feet of water from the Comite River invaded their dwelling.

Mike Johnson said he walked through chest-deep water in the street.

"It moved sofas from against the walls, flipped the freezer and filled up the bathtub," said the 64-year-old Johnson, who had planned to retire in two years before the flooding scuttled those plans.

"The hardest part of it is a lifetime of accumulation gone in a couple of hours," he said of the family's possessions. "Now it's back to the drawing board."

Johnson is a minister, and his 60-year-old wife is the daughter of a pastor, so they are relying heavily on their faith to endure the most difficult test of their lives. They were both smiling Saturday.

"Our faith is strong. We're not stressing on it," he said. "(But) don't like it. A rebuilding process is just inconvenient."

"It was devastating but we got out with our lives," Paulette Johnson added. "That's the most important thing."

Mary Johnson, 53, who lives next door to the Johnsons but is not related to them, moved into her rented home Aug. 11, the same day the heavy rainfall began. Everything she owned was sitting in a big pile at the curb Saturday.

"There ain't much to say, much to do," she said as she stood in the searing heat in her driveway and glanced at the debris pile. "That's everything right there."

Johnson is now living with her sister near Glen Oaks.

"I ain't going to let that water ruin me," she insisted. "Just live, live, live. That's all you can do."

On the other side of Glen Oaks High on Oakside Drive near Glenette Court, the home of Wilbert and Monique Dyer is nearly completely gutted.

Wearing white masks to protect themselves from breathing in mold or other toxins, Wilbert Dyer, 62, used a wheelbarrow to shuttle debris to the street while his 55-year-old wife used a flat long-handled flat blade to scrape up glue that once held flooring tiles down.

Wilbert Dyer, who retired in October, said the floodwater outside their home was higher than it was inside when he checked on the house Monday.

"When I opened the doors, the water started running out," he said, noting that the home, which they purchased in 1978, took on two feet of water.

"It was really frightening," Monique Dyer said.

If not for the widespread flooding that swamped much of East Baton Rouge Parish, Wilbert Dyer said he'd consider moving.

"Drive around. Where you going to go?" he asked rhetorically.

Similar stories of people clearing out water soaked belongings were playing out in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish and in neighboring parishes Saturday.

Like many other Baton Rouge residents whose homes flooded for the first time, George Godso is coping with the damage to his home in the Antioch Villa subdivision through the two F’s: family and friends.

Godso has lived on Doyle Road for 30 years, and says the 13.5 inches of water won’t change that. Godso’s crew had been clearing the house for four days. By Saturday, everything in the house – from irreplaceable wedding photos to living room furniture – had been dumped in a waist-high mound that stretched across the front yard.

“We could probably be back in here in three weeks to a month…. But we have to get the mold remediation certificate,” Godso said.

Federal health, environmental and housing agencies recommend hiring a mold inspection or remediation professional affiliated with or certified by the National Environmental Health Association; the American Industrial Hygiene Association; the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification; or American Council for Accredited Certification to inspect, repair and restore the damaged parts of a flooded home.

Since 2004, the Louisiana Health Department has said persons who provide mold cleanup services must have a Mold Remediation Contractor's License with the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors.

Godso was one of the many homeowners who didn’t have flood insurance. When he bought the house, it was a foot higher than the flood plain, and as far as he knows still is. Godso is hoping his homeowner’s policy will cover some of his appliances because his toilet backed up and overflowed before the water outside rose enough to reach his house.

For now, Godso is staying with his daughter Stacy Cobb at her in-laws in Baton Rouge. Cobb’s home in Denham Springs had close to 3 feet of water in it by the time the National Guard rescued her and her family.

Michael Matherne, a longtime Woodlawn Acres resident, is relying on family alone: sister, brother and nephew.

When the water began threatening the house late Friday, Matherne and his family fled to his father’s property in French Settlement. The house there didn’t flood, but the Mathernes were trapped for two days by high water.

Meanwhile, the flood left a line about 3 feet high in his Woodlawn Acres house, not far below the countertops. Matherne works nights at the U.S. Postal Service’s Bluebonnet Boulevard center so he wasn’t able to get away to begin cleaning until a couple of days ago.

By Friday Matherne, his sister and brother had built a mound across the front yard of furniture, carpet and keepsakes.

Just about every lot on Woodlawn Acres displayed a similar mass of sadness.

Matherne was stoic despite the fact that all his possessions lay on the muddied lawn.

“I have the ability to put it aside," he said. "I don’t have a lot of attachments to possessions."

Early Saturday, Matherne set out to tackle the wallboard. But the mold and mildew that wasn’t too bad on Friday night had reached smell and eye-burning intensity on Saturday. By mid-morning the mold line had risen a foot, and Matherne decided to call in the professionals.

He’s planning to stay in the house, once it’s repaired. 

Just down the street, Jade Tomeny’s cleanup was nearly complete. The house had been emptied, the walls stripped except for some wallboard to show insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency adjusters how high the flood waters were.

Tomeny and his wife bought the house two years ago, right after they got married.

“We were happy just to have a house, actually," Tomeny said. "We were happy to be in our new house. It was everything we worked for."

Now Tomeny plans to make the repairs – he has flood insurance – and move. The Tomenys had always planned to do so, before they had kids, and that hasn’t changed.

Joe Martin Jr.’s efforts to clean up his house on Lake Iris Avenue in Azalea Lakes were complicated by his work as a night shift manager at one of the Red Cross’s three dozen area shelters.

“I’ve spent more time at the shelter than here, for sure. But I knew that I needed to get to it soon,” Martin said. “It’s important for me to take care of my things as well.”

Martin said he has been grabbing three- or four-hour naps at his son’s house. On Tuesday, he and his son and daughter-in-law started cleaning up the mess left by 8 inches of water inside the house.

On Friday night, Martin slept in his house for the first time since the flooding. He and his crew, boosted by the expertise of his neighbor from across the street, Ben Gilbert, removed the wallboard in his bedroom and cleaned the bathroom enough to make it usable. Early Saturday, the team started on the wallboard in the rest of the house, and they expect to finish by the end of the day.

Martin bought his house in 2001, when Tropical Storm Allison squatted over the Gulf Coast and caused flooding in Louisiana and Texas.

Martin said he’s single and not in a hurry to replace everything. He’s applied to FEMA for assistance, but he doesn’t expect a check soon or much of one.

He’s also not sure whether he will buy flood insurance. Although Friday afternoon his wallboard clearing was interrupted by an insurance company representative who called to try and sell Martin some flood insurance … “for next time.”

“I know there’s pros and cons to that …. I just didn’t think the timing was very good,” Martin said.


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